Sunderland played very well at the Stadium of Light last night – but only when it was too late. It is the story of their season.
At 2-0 down the Black Cats played with all the verve and energy which, if applied in the first 50 minutes, might have gained them a win against a West Ham United side who were nothing to write home about.
In the Premier League at least, Sunderland are toothless at home, where the anxiety pierced the fog last night and transmitted to the players.
They also don’t like Mondays. Today’s is the tenth anniversary of their last Monday win. Their next match is on Monday. At Tottenham Hotspur.
Whether those omens filtered through to the players or not, they did not seem to believe they could win. Much more likely is they are simply too timid to grasp these opportunities.
Sending goalkeeper Vito Mannone up for two late corners was all well and good, but Sunderland had 90 minutes in which to win last night’s game yet lacked the urgency to do so in the first 50 of them.
Of all the qualities the Black Cats might lack you would not think it would be possible that would be one in their predicament.
Even their game in hand will not lift them out of the relegation zone now.
The believers will point out Sunderland could have won and they will be right.
If Connor Wickham’s cross shot had been an inch or two to the right, if Adrian had not made such a good save from the striker minutes later, if Fabio Borini had not hit the side-netting, if Ignacio Scocco had not headed an excellent injury-time cross from Marcos Alonso over.
Coulda, shoulda, woulda. Eventually when you hear so many hard luck stories, they have no impact.
The biggest of the lot is coming Sunderland’s way if they do not do something about it pretty soon.
The boos at the end of each half showed what the home fans thought.
West Ham away are a very different proposition to Liverpool at home, but Poyet decided to opt for the same formation, bringing Ki Sung-Yeung back into an advanced midfield role he revelled in and Borini into the centre-forward position he pines for.
While Phil Bardsley and Alonso made good use of the space wide, two and at times all three of the centre-backs were often stood idle.
Sunderland had 63% of the first-half possession but lacked the confidence and the urgency to make the most of it.
All West Ham needed was a corner to take the lead.
Bardsley nearly found the net at the end of a rampaging run but, whether it was a cross or a shot, his follow flew past the far post.
When a neat inside pass from Wickham indirectly ended up at the feet of Lee Cattermole the midfielder had far too much time and space to think about what he was going to do.
Able to see the whites of Adrian’s eyes, he fired the ball straight at him and, leaning back, hit the rebound wide.
Generally, though, Sunderland took their shots from outside the area, perhaps lacking the belief they could slice their way through.
Santiago Vergini’s 28th-minute shot was typical. He must have been 35 yards from goal and his strike ended five yards wide of it.
Well set up by Ki 10 minutes before the break, Liam Bridcutt had time to measure his shot but put it just over from the edge of the area.
Alonso’s shot squirmed off his boot and went for a throw-in.
If urgency was lacking, so was luck.
Howard Webb, not a referee Sunderland are over-fond of, looked well positioned to see Kevin Nolan knocking the ball out of John O’Shea’s path, yet declined to give a penalty.
As usual, all this came after giving the opposition a headstart.
Not since the derby have Sunderland taken the lead in a Premier League game and it took just nine minutes for Andy Carroll to make his mark on the team-sheet.
The Gateshead man is magnificent in the air and O’Shea was unable to make life difficult for him as he rose to nod in Mark Noble’s corner.
West Ham’s threat was sporadic at best after that, but it was always present. Carroll served a reminder 26 minutes later, outjumping Wes Brown this time from a George McCartney cross. This effort, though, was comfortable for Mannone.
The second half started as the first had, with a Sunderland cross-shot agonisingly wide – only this time Connor Wickham took the ball off Wickham’s toes. It went agonisingly close, but a few yards in front of Ki.
As at Anfield, Poyet waited until his side were 2-0 down to make a much-needed change. By the time Adam Johnson replaced Cattermole, Mohammed Diame had hit a fortuitous second.
O’Shea was powerless at Carroll’s back to stop the striker chesting it into Diame’s path and his shot deflected off Vergini and into the net. The Stadium of Light was stunned.
Bringing Craig Gardner on as the next substitute seemed a logical move – they really needed his goal threat.
The only surprise was it was O’Shea who made way for him.
Both substitutes made a quick impact, Gardner threading a lovely pass which Johnson curled past the goalkeeper to give the game an entirely new complexion.
Suddenly Sunderland were rampant. That is the frustrating thing about this side – they do have a habit of waiting until they are almost dead and buried before fighting back.
As at Norwich City, as at Liverpool, they started to play at 2-0.
They could have been level within three minutes. When Adrian failed to hold Ki’s long-distance shot, Wickham was quickly on the scene. It was a great opportunity spurned on his 21st birthday but credit must go to the goalkeeper for spreading himself.
A minute later Wickham picked out Borini, whose shot rippled the side-netting. For a tantalising second one or two in the stands thought it was from the inside.
Scocco will be angry with himself for heading over, albeit from distance, in a frantic added time, but even a draw would have been another missed opportunity.